BOND, JAMES BOND: Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Directed by Guy Hamilton
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz
Release Date: 17th December 1971 (U.S), 30th December 1971 (U.K)

There’s a general consensus amongst many that the Bond series’ swing towards comedy in the 1970s was as a result of the casting of Roger Moore, but the truth is the decade began with James Bond in a slightly more comedic mode, and it started with a Sean Connery film.

Opening in Japan, which was where we last left Connery in You Only Live Twice, there is a feeling that is inescapable that Eon and returning director Guy Hamilton have taken the approach to ignore OHMSS and simply pretend it never happened and since their original leading man is back, normal service has resumed, thank you very much.

Although still a sizeable box office hit, it hadn’t gone unnoticed that the money that came in for the previous entry in the series had been lower than usual, still higher than Dr. No and From Russia with Love, but the peaks of Goldfinger and Thunderball had yet to be matched by the previous film and You Only Live Twice.

For a short time after, the general consensus regarding the one Lazenby Bond film was that it was some sort of aberration; lower box office, sniffy reviews and an actor who had only done one film gave it the feeling of some sort of outlier or anomalous film in the series. Along with fidelity to the source material and a downbeat ending, it was clear that there was some sort of consensus to get back to a sense of normality.

Reportedly, Eon weren’t as keen to get Connery back, and the return of the original big screen 007 was a mandate dictated somewhat by United Artists who wanted to get the series back on a commercially successful track and it was believed the way to do that was with Connery back in the gun barrel.

Other potential Bonds were considered, most famously Psycho actor John Gavin who had actually signed up to play the role, before UA decided to bring back Connery, the studio somewhat fearful of recasting the role for a second time in succession.

The nationality of 007 is somewhat of a bone of contention when it comes to speculation and discussion of a potential James Bond. The general feeling is that he must be British and nobody else will do, but it hasn’t stopped Eon from over the years considering actors away from the British Isles.

Admittedly not every 007 has been English, with only Roger Moore and Daniel Craig being from England while Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Australia have brought us the others, but the one thing that seems beyond repute is that having an American Bond is a no-no.

Despite that, Gavin signed a contract and still made money from the film despite never appearing in a single frame, such was the nature of his contract with Eon and UA, but it didn’t stop the producers and director Guy Hamilton from entertaining the notion of a young Burt Reynolds and a post-Batman Adam West as potential carriers of Bond’s Walther PPK.

In actuality, an American Bond might not have looked out of place in Diamonds are Forever given that it is the most American flavoured 007 up to this point, or at the very least since Goldfinger, with a large majority of the action taking place in Las Vegas.

Diamonds are Forever would mark Connery’s return to 007 after a four year absence.

The Vegas setting was a key component of Fleming’s novel, the screenplay of which retained elements of the diamond smuggling plot line but little else, once again utilising tropes more representative of spy-fy, such as a satellite with a diamond powered laser, and the presence of Blofeld, giving it more connections to the continuity of the movie series, although once again, the audience is left confused as to what continuity we’re following here since the film appears to be ignoring one film in favour of another.

There’s a school of thought that the pre-title sequence that opens the film is a direct follow-up from OHMSS and that Bond is seeking vengeance for the murder of Tracy, but Bond’s marriage is not mentioned once in the course of the film, and Moneypenny even cracks an engagement ring joke, which might seem callous but it honestly feels as if everything about the film is looking away from the previous entry as if it never happened.

The pre-title sequence involving Bond hunting down Blofeld across the globe even appears to open in Japan where we last left Connery, while M telling Bond that he is looking forward to him doing some other work appears to be in relation to 007 looking for Blofeld more for him having escaped in You Only Live Twice as opposed to killing Bond’s wife, which one imagines M would be more sympathetic to.

Guy Hamilton had been asked to return to the director’s chair for Thunderball but claimed the experience of directing Goldfinger had drained him of ideas. The consensus amongst many behind the scenes had been to try and get a Bond film closer in style and attitude to Goldfinger when it came to Diamonds are Forever. Goldfinger was considered somewhat of a gold standard for the series, a commercial and critical success that everyone seemed to agree on and which had that magic combination of great reviews and great box office (reviews of the films after were somewhat more mixed in some quarters, especially since the films started looking more towards gadgetry and epic stories as opposed to the smaller scale narratives with which the series began with).

With a story involving diamonds and a laser, it seemed as if a Goldfinger-style romp was the intention, and rumour frequently has it that bringing back Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger’s twin brother was an idea under consideration.

Heading into the 70s, the Bond series was no longer the epitome of blockbusters that it was in the 60s. The films were still successful, even if there concerns about a downturn in box office, but Hollywood itself was now gravitating towards its own kind of ongoing action heroes, the first of which were about to be in competition with Bond during the decade.

Some of these competitors would influence the series itself, especially when we got to the 80s and 2000s, and Eon would have to use certain stylistic tricks of other movies to prove they still had what it took to be a viable and commercially successful action franchise.

The 80s would have its own era-defining characters that were fuelled by testosterone and the Ronald Reagan-flavoured politics of the day, but going into the 70s, a decade following spy-fy, Cold War rhetoric that nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation and an American President fuelled by paranoid hatred and set to be brought down by the Watergate Scandal, a certain bitterness started to infiltrate the action movie mindset, especially in American productions.

This was to be the era of Dirty Harry, as well as several other gritty Clint Eastwood action films and westerns, the latter being a million miles away from the more romanticised works of John Wayne, not to mention gritty anti-heroic narratives that starred Charles Bronson, the most infamous being Michael Winner’s Death Wish, itself launching too many sequels for such a terrible film as the 70s turned into the 80s.

Dirty Harry and Death Wish were also an early example of not only Hollywood turning towards its own brand of action hero, but ones with which they could return to again and again in their own franchises, using a template similar in production to 007, but with stories, themes and character a million miles away from the glamour and glossy escapism of Eon’s films. Dirty Harry made his debut in 1971, the same year as Diamonds are Forever, and would star in two other films throughout the 70s, and two more into the 1980s.

The comedic style of the Moon Buggy chase was an indication of the tone that many Bond films were about to fall into during the 1970s.

As for Bond, the series would steer clear of any grittier directions and turns, at least for the 70s and most of the 80s with Roger Moore in the role. On top of the likes of Harry Callahan and substantially more confrontational ‘New Hollywood’ films from directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese, this was also to be the era of broader action comedies such as Smokey and the Bandit.

While a sense of escapism would return to movie screens when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made their presence known (and Bond would be waiting with his own epic adventures on a grand scale to close out the 70s), escapist cinema was to be found on American streets getting into car chases with idiotic police officers who could never catch up to the film’s Teflon hero and it’s this which Diamonds are Forever latches on to as soon as the film makes its way to Vegas, a world away from the grittier alternative where the cops were more renegade and dangerous, prone to following their own rules.

While the next two films in the series would look towards Blaxploitation and kung-fu cinema, Diamonds are Forever was grasping a touch of the American flavour of movies such as Dirty Harry and The French Connection but wanting to dearly hold on to Bond’s own sense of escapism, one free of the more brutal violence and darker behaviour that characterised those films.

Instead of turning to crime filled locations such as San Francisco and New York (although Bond would spend some time in the latter during Live and Let Die), the film instead utilises the ghastly glamour of 70s Vegas to throw in some colour to its adventure, still retaining some interest in the previous decade’s fascination with the space race, all the while throwing into the mix the type of car chase that would come to define some of the decade’s more escapist action fare such as Smokey and the Bandit and the television series The Dukes of Hazzard.

The tone of the film right away is clearly a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived failings of the previous entry; it’s jaunty and fun admittedly, although still very much a film of its time given the gender politics on display. Leading Bond Woman Tiffany Case (Jill St John) starts the film off as someone who can toe-to-toe verbally with 007 but who becomes more stereotypical as the film goes on and eventually is left with nothing to do but wear swimwear for the film’s final act after being kidnapped by Blofeld and having to be saved by Bond.

Strangely enough, the whole Bond Woman kidnapped by the villain and made to wear swimwear would become something of a trope in itself throughout the 70s, with similar fates befalling Mary Goodnight in The Man with the Golden Gun and Agent XXX (yes, really) in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Then there’s Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, the most prominent henchmen in the film. A frequent presence throughout, they are amongst the first openly gay characters in a 007 film (although arguably Henderson from You Only Live Twice was the very first if his comments about visiting the Russian Embassy are anything to go by).

It’s hard to know what to think of these characters in 2020. They have by far the most entertaining presence in the film, but they are also blatantly psychotic and rack up the body count throughout the film quite considerably, although they are, like so many Bond villains, useless when it comes to killing off James Bond himself.

This being the 70s, it seems they are never allowed too much physical contact beyond holding hands, but they never steer too far into camp in a way that seemed very obvious during the period with so many other LGBTQ characters of the decade in other works. Mr Wint is seen frequently applying perfume to himself, but this seems to be more in the mode of setting up Bond’s identification of him in the final scene rather than as a piece of character development.

Many films and television shows had a habit of equating homosexuality or same-sex attraction to being psychotic, although this being a Bond film, the characters are villains and they would be psychotic regardless of their sexuality, but it still says a lot about the period of time that two characters who happen to be gay and appearing in a Bond film do so as antagonists. One could make the argument that Henderson is a much more interesting character since he’s a good guy, but then he ends up dead in that film, as do Wint and Kidd, although once again, as the villains, it’s the nature of a Bond movie narrative.

Another face change for Blofeld, Charles Grey brings a more arch and humorous quality to his version of the character which is, admittedly, a lot of fun, if very far away from Savalas and Pleasance.

While Richard Maibaum still contributed to the screenplay, the producers opted to bring in Tom Mankiewicz to make contributions as well. The first of several Bonds he would write for throughout the 70s, for all the issues that the film has, and there are many, it is still one filled with wit and wonderful one-liners, most of which Mankiewicz wrote, and many of those lines are given to Wint and Kidd, delivered with laid back witty charm by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith.

The biggest problem about Diamonds are Forever is that it plays everything safe coming off the back of the most daring film of the series so far. The narrative and emphasis on humour and comedy is the series recoiling from having tried something different, being perceived as a failure, and opting to do what it thinks it knows best with this one. Of course, the irony of all this is that as the years have gone on, OHMSS is now generally regarded as the finest film of the series and Diamonds are Forever now languishes near the bottom of many polls that rank the series.

It begins promisingly enough, with a breezy tone and a quick trip to Amsterdam hinting at a genuinely witty and thrilling film. It eventually peaks with a superlative elevator fight that’s right up there with From Russia with Love for sheer physical brute force and impactful violence, although it’s also more playful, and where From Russia with Love ends with Red Grant being cold-bloodedly strangled to death by Bond, it says a lot about this film that it ends with the real Peter Franks being sprayed with a fire extinguisher. In some respects it’s still cold blooded, but it has a more playful, humourous punchline compared to the bitterness with which Connery killed Grant.

As for Connery, he glides into the film as if he had never left, and for all the complaints about how bored he was in You Only Live Twice, he genuinely appears to be having fun here. He’s a little older and the hair is a little greyer, and many do make comment about his physical appearance, but he has the grace of an aging professional who knows what he’s doing and goes about doing it well.

It’s not without entertainment value, that much is true, but in rewatching it straight after the onslaught of physicality and the emotional punch of the film before it, it cannot help but look somewhat superficial in comparison.

Every action sequence has a joke or a punchline, and even some of the set-pieces themselves feel like comedy sketches more than action sequences, not least the Moon Buggy chase and eventually the demolition derby that Bond finds himself in when he returns to Vegas.

The final set piece takes place in an oil rig and goes for something grand, but doesn’t quite hit the creative, production or editorial heights of the last three films. Ken Adam is back on production design duty, but we’d have to wait until 1977 and 1979 for him to deliver production design on the scale and budget of You Only Live Twice or Goldfinger, while there appears to be a feeling of trying to keep the costs down so as not to go over schedule and have to pay Connery overtime, as was a stipulation of his contract.

Initially the end of Connery’s tenure in the role, Bond would once again have a different face for his next adventure, but it would be a face he would wear for the next seven films and twelve years, and be an era that would invoke mixed reactions, but one which was set to be a defining period of time for the series also.

Strangely enough, it would be during that era that Connery would return once again to the role, but it would not, however, be for Eon.

Bond, James Bond will return in…Live and Let Die.

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